Screen Gems Imitation of Life
Imitation of Life, classic drama, not rated, The Screen, 3 chiles In 1959, the American civil rights movement was just beginning to stir. It had been a scant five years since the Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education. It had been just four years since Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on an Alabama bus to a white man, triggering the Montgomery bus boycott and bringing to national attention a Baptist minister named Martin Luther King Jr. The country was still years away from the Freedom Rides of the ’60s, the great civil rights marches, and the civil rights acts.
If civil rights was still only a faint rumor on the edges of the consciousness of most white Americans, the Hollywood studio/star system was still making magic. And into this confluence of real life and wishful thinking stepped filmmaker Douglas Sirk with a lavish remake of Imitation of Life, the 1934 racethemed tearjerker adapted from a bestselling novel by Fannie Hurst. Sirk was a German expatriate known for lush, over-the-top Hollywood melodramas, including Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows
(1955), and Written on the Wind (1956). Imitation of Life stars Lana Turner as Lora Meredith, a young widow, mother, and struggling actress. (In the earlier version, Claudette Colbert played her as an aspiring pancake entrepreneur.) The story begins in 1947, at a New York beach, where Lora meets another single mother, Annie Johnson (the wonderful Juanita Moore, who died last year). The two women bond over their daughters, six-year-old Susie (who will grow up to be played by Sandra Dee) and eight-year-old Sarah Jane (who has the better luck to emerge as Susan Kohner).
Lora doesn’t have much, but she does have an apartment, and she is white — two things that give her a big advantage over Annie, who comes to work for her. And soon the breaks start to turn for Lora. She gets a modeling job sprinkling flea powder on a dog and a theatrical agent, Allen Loomis (Robert Alda), who wants to get into her pants. Needless to say, she turns him down with eyes flashing ice; but in a bit of serendipity that may be the movie’s most wonderfully farfetched (and hilarious) moment, Loomis is with David Edwards (Dan O’Herlihy) when the prizewinning playwright sees the flea-powder ad in a magazine and decides this is the woman he needs for his new play.
She’s on her way. But there are bodies to be climbed over. They include sincere, handsome photographer-adman Steve Archer (the absurdly handsome John Gavin), who wants to marry her; Susie, who finds herself playing a bit role in her mother’s accelerating career; and the tortured Sarah Jane, who can pass for white (“She favors her father,” Annie says) and is determined to do so.
The true nobility in this story is in Moore’s performance (she and Kohner were Oscar-nominated for best supporting actress). Annie serves and supports and endures endless slights and racist indignities with saintly patience. She loves her white folks, knows her place, dreams of a lavish funeral as her penultimate reward, and wants only to love and find the best for Sarah Jane, who is mortified by her mother’s blackness and is desperate to distance herself from it.
Imitation of Life was Sirk’s last feature and one of his most successful. Audiences loved his movies. Critics were less moved. Bosley Crowther in The New York
Times sniped that the actors “do not give an imitation of life. They give an imitation of movie acting.” But the French, who would soon discover Jerry Lewis, were more receptive. Jean-Luc Godard enthused that Sirk’s work “set my cheeks afire.” And as the years have gone by, the critical pendulum has swung firmly into the corner of this man who fled Hitler’s Germany in 1937 with his Jewish wife to escape Nazi persecution.
There are two lines of clear and rigid demarcation put forward in this picture. The first, of course, is the color line. Sirk handles with finely smoldering indignation the discrimination and disrespect Annie must endure, the unjustly stacked deck that drives Sarah Jane to reject her mother and seek a better chance in life as a white girl. It’s abundantly apparent in the outside world, but it’s also clear in their domestic life, where Lora treats them with love and compassion but also with a clear sense of class difference; the housekeeper is always “Annie,” but the boss lady is always “Miss Lora.”
The other line in the sociological sand is drawn at a woman’s either-or choice between marriage and career. Steve is proposing when Lora gets the phone call that brings her first break. He expects her to turn it down and become Mrs. Archer. She refuses and rejects him and begins her climb to celebrity; only later, when she has tasted the champagne and caviar and found it stale, does she realize how wrong she’s been. More than half a century has passed since Imitation of Life laid down its challenges to contemporary attitudes toward racism and sexism. Sirk’s style has acquired a patina of classicism in the intervening years. You may snicker at the endless succession of designer clothes and designer interiors, the hairdos that greet the morning with indomitable perfection, and some of the equally styled-and-lacquered dialogue, but there is a throbbing sincerity and a dazzling artistry at work here. As Time noted back then, “It may force theatre owners to install aisle scuppers to drain off the tears.” You are advised to bring Kleenex.
Karin Dicker, Juanita Moore, Terry Burnham, and Lana Turner